When the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts offered Richard Avedon a retrospective in 1970, he agreed under the condition that the show exclude his fashion photography. “Fashion is the f-word,” he said, “the dirtiest word in the eyes of the art world.” Although he eventually relented – and fashion has become the genre for which he’s most celebrated – fashion photography is still considered suspect by many art cognoscenti. A splashy new exhibition at the Getty Museum counters this prejudice with an onslaught of 160 arresting images.
Some of them are by Avedon (including Dovima with Elephants, one of the most iconic fashion photos of all time). Other famous names range from Erwin Blumenfeld to Helmut Newton to Guy Bourdin to Mario Testino, as well as artists better known for different genres (such as Man Ray, who was sometimes wary even to be associated with photography). The sheer spectacle is impressive enough to make even the staunchest traditionalists question their standards. And there are more than a few images that individually rival the fine art of their era on formal or conceptual grounds. (Bourdin often manages to achieve both feats simultaneously.)
However the weaknesses of this show are equally revealing: pictures by Herb Ritts that are superficially pretty, for instance, and images by Tim Walker that are stereotypically high-concept. Their inclusion is actually good for the exhibition, to the extent that the exhibition bolsters fashion photography as an art form, because uniformly high quality might seduce viewers into admiring fashion photography uncritically. In other words, for fashion photography to have a real place in the art world – and to be more than a pop cultural placeholder – viewers need to judge these pictures with as much rigor as is applied to painting and sculpture.
Admitting fashion photography into the museum may be a necessary step toward taking the genre seriously as art, but the museum context is not sufficient. A critical framework has to be developed, extending the framework for assessing photography to the special circumstances of fashion and mass media. Occasionally fashion photos may stand on their own as images created under a fashion house’s patronage – Dovima with Elephants is a fine example – but the vast majority demand multidimensional viewing, because artistic meaning is spread between the image, what it depicts, and how it was disseminated.
As the name suggests, fashion photography is a hybrid medium. It holds many allegiances, some mercantile and others populist, which partly explains why it’s been such a dirty word in high culture. Museums including the Getty can encourage people to accept fashion photography at art (and the Getty’s hefty catalogue can provide valuable background knowledge). To fully appreciate fashion photography, though, requires that a discerning public exit the museum and engage it in magazines and on billboards. Perhaps Richard Avedon had the right idea after all.